22 May 2013

Why Buy Music?

We grew up collecting records.  I remember my excitement as a young teenager, my pocket stuffed with the cash paid by my first under-the-table job (stuffing padded envelopes with cologne samples for Helena Rubenstein), heading with my friend Angela to a record shop around the corner from the office, where you could find bins full of albums that were five dollars.

What did I buy? The Stranger by Billy Joel.  Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. Anything I could find by the Beatles. When I was able to say I had every Beatles album, I felt ridiculously proud.

It was 1978.  The stereo in my brother's room was his pride.  Even when he was away at college, I had to be awfully careful. The Phillips turntable was touchy.  There were special tools to keep records clear of dust and prepare them to be played. When records skipped too much, I balanced a penny (or stacked a few pennies if it was especially bad) on top of the needle end of the turntable arm.  Some said it was bad for the records, but they wouldn't play through otherwise.  Nothing worse than a skip in your favorite song.

By 1982 I was away at college myself; I had adopted the stereo and the stacked pennies were a permanent fixture. My record collection had greatly expanded via several initiated and then canceled memberships in Columbia House (13 records for a penny! Plus postage and handling) and similar clubs.

By the late 1980s, I had a walkman and a boombox (more box than boom). This meant cassette tapes.  I could have taped my albums, but I didn't have great equipment for that, so I started buying music on tape.

So, boxes of albums were joined by boxes of cassettes.  I was slow to adopt CDs, but by the time I met Victor (1990) the writing was on the wall. He had a CD player and there seemed no point in fighting the new technology.  Victor and I collected CDs for about 15 years.  In Boston we had a small shelf of them.  In Seattle the CD shelf got longer.  In Columbus, multiple shelves of CDs lined the walls around our stereo.

When we moved to our current home in Chicago, it was 2005.  We contemplated covering the walls with CDs, but instead finally caved and got an iPod (slow to adopt, again--the first iPod was released in 2001). I painstakingly converted all our CDs to MP3s and put our CDs in storage. Hooked up the stereo to our loaded iPod.  Got rid of the records and cassette tapes--we were just not using them.

We talked about updating our stereo system but without conviction.  We just didn't find ourselves using it that much.  The iPod was a bit awkward to use as a stereo controller.  We didn't always find ourselves in the living room when we felt like listening to music.

Then we found Sonos. Wireless stereo. Connects to the Internet with your wireless router. Can play from your iTunes music library and also connect to music services (Pandora, MOG).  You can put speakers in every room; play different music or radio stations in each one or play the same on all.  Control the system with your iOS device or computer or an (admittedly expensive) dedicated remote.

Our music listening increased exponentially.  We had instant, easy access to all our own music and (through MOG) just about any music we could imagine. If we didn't feel like choosing what to play, Pandora was a great DJ. Sonos also led us to Wolfgang's Vault, a trove of live recordings.

These are paid services.  MOG is the most expensive, at $9.95 a month.  Pandora costs about $40 a year, as does Wolfgang's Vault.  But it means that for about $200 a year we can play anything, anytime, anywhere (the subscription fees cover streaming to our mobile devices as well as Sonos). 

A friend asked us recently, Do you still buy music?  Why would you?

We buy a lot less than we used to.  But we do buy music sometimes. Some music is so special you just want to own it.  The pleasure of collecting is only partially satisfied by marking something a "favorite" (essentially bookmarking it) on a subscription service.  Further, you don't always have access to the Internet, and you can't always stream.  We have our entire music libraries on our iPhones now (at 64GB, our phones have more capacity than our first iPod (32GB)); at 20,000 feet (even on a non- "wi-fi" plane) we can listen to our favorite stuff.  If I discover a something great on MOG or Pandora (Ben Folds, or the Follies cast album) I generally buy it eventually.

Old fashioned, I guess. Quality deserves patronage.